Monday, September 11, 2006


Sex and the President

With a certain visible degree of social and physical homogeneity between the Liberal Democrat Leader and his Deputy, pressure is coming for a change in the Party President quite apart from Simon Hughes’ record in the job. Many want our next President to be a woman, and this isn’t just a platitude that evaporates when asked to name a choice; thanks to a particularly strong set of new women MPs, both online polls currently show a majority of those endorsing a potential candidate have picked a female one. There’s also a Conference debate next week on diversity in Parliamentary candidates.

Stephen Tall’s main site currently puts Paddy Ashdown in the lead at 23%, with Lynne Featherstone close behind on 20% – but together, the women candidates add up to 60% of the votes cast in his poll (while he calls it “A two-horse race”, however, I wouldn’t put money on either of those two actually standing). While Lynne took a dramatic early lead in yesterday’s voting on the newly launched Liberal Democrat Voice site, ‘our place to gossip’, she’s now dropped back there from 40%+ to 26%; still in the lead but no longer a ‘one-horse race’. In second place, interestingly, is again Paddy Ashdown, trailing on 19%. This time there is a ‘None of the above’ option which has so far taken 13%, which means that although the potential female candidates listed don’t take a majority of the votes cast, at 45% they do have a combined plurality. Incumbent Simon Hughes languishes at just 6% and 4% respectively. However, if several women candidates were available to vote between in an actual Presidential election, would people transfer between them on the basis of gender, or based on their programme for the job and their general perceived positions? And never mind that; will any woman candidate at all actually stand?

Remember, opinion polls are bobbins, but they’re fun to talk about, aren’t they?

All other things being equal, I’d prefer a non-Parliamentarian in the job, too, but this close to the election only an MP can have the profile to be a serious contender – unless of course a TV-friendly councillor, say, were to save both Ming Campbell and an adorable little baby from drowning off Brighton Pier, then swing a vital Conference vote with a barnstorming and hilarious speech while still dripping (Stephen, pack your water wings just in case).

The crucial factor here is not just the vague wish to have a woman at the top of the party, but that since the last election we have for the first time a significant number of female MPs widely fancied as potential challengers. The question still remains of how to get more women MPs into Parliament, and indeed more people from other under-represented social groups. Conference will see another debate next week, and thankfully things have moved on from the sterile arguments over how we should correct the wrongs of discrimination by inventing more forms of discrimination, and now the party has made some impressive breakthroughs in getting women elected, it’s starting to take a look at how other groups fare too.

Peter on the Liberal Review has pointed out that, as with previous attempts to alter the gender balance of otherwise remarkably similar white, middle-aged, middle-class and married candidates, this motion on Diversity and Equality makes no mention of economic inequality, just as Meeting the Challenge decides on our behalf that economic inequality is the only one worth talking about. However, vague as it is, described by Mark Valladares as “entirely reasonable if almost entirely lacking in detail,” it does at least not only make some of the right noises but, crucially, promise further consultation about what concrete action to take, rather than allowing the party to sit back and say ‘OK, done that’. I do not intend to speak on this motion, having made myself quite unpopular enough in the past by single-handedly sinking a constitutional amendment on ethnic minority candidates which did indeed promise no future action and whose warm but meaningless words would have allowed the party to sit back and say ‘OK, done that’, as well making a rather distressed speech the last time we had a big row on this subject.

The fact remains that we had some success at the last General Election in getting women MPs elected, and should keep up the pace, but we’ve been far less successful in other respects. A couple of years ago we won our first MP from a visible ethnic minority since the 19th Century, only to lose him at the General Election. At the same time as the party was singing of our new female Parliamentarians from the rooftops, it didn’t bother even to tell the gay press that we’d elected our first ever out gay MP, let alone share the news with anyone else. Since then, of course, two other MPs have been outed as bisexual, and the reaction of both the press and the party has been horror at this ‘scandal’. My own view is that – providing everything is done with informed consent – we should shrug our shoulders at what anyone gets up to in bed and wish them good luck. Unfortunately, it seems the party is still mortally embarrassed instead, and that the chances of a gay man or lesbian being selected for a winnable seat, still less one of those ‘scandalous’ bisexuals who – heavens! – likes sex but isn’t in a long-term relationship, are correspondingly even lower than usual.

In that light, and in light of the way non-heterosexuals have been airbrushed out of several policy papers this year, it may be instructive to examine the ‘Diversity and Equality’ motion more closely. Back in 1997, we had a last-minute row over including the word ‘bisexual’ in the Manifesto; I proposed it and the several other gay men on the FPC at the time voted with me, but several worried-looking presumed heterosexuals kept ‘them’ out, including the senior MP to whom I had to explain what a ‘bisexual’ was (and without using the words ‘your agent’). Since then, Manifestos have been more inclusive, but now bisexuals have evidently become too scary to mention again even in the one thing on the Agenda that ‘dares’ to mention other people who aren’t heterosexual. Here is the well-meaning, hand-wavy, fuzzy-wordsy part:
Conference affirms that the under-representation of women, people with disabilities, black and minority ethnic people and lesbian and gay people in elected public office is unhealthy for democracy and good decision-making and that the Liberal Democrats must play their full part in correcting this imbalance.
And here is the bit where action is to be taken:
Conference agrees that the gender, disability and ethnicity of selected candidates should be considered when assigning target status to UK parliamentary constituencies, and instructs the Federal Executive to work with the State Parties to consider how best to ensure equality and diversity at all other levels of candidate selection.
Can you spot the difference, girls and boys?

several worried-looking presumed heterosexuals kept ‘them’ out - I thought the "b" word had made it in to the '97 manifesto?

However, the general air of marginalisation of LG and moreso B does trouble me. T is probably beyond the grasp of a federal policy motion, at least in the way that I'd want it to be put.

The weakness of DELGA in the last few years is only a part of the explanation I'm sure - EMLD even lacks a functioning website at the moment so far as I can find. That said, a revitalised LGBT wing to the party would probably help.
Personally, I'm inclined to speak and vote against the Diversity motion. Notwithstanding your point about LGBT, we already have well-established strategy on both ethnic diversity and gender balance (it just happens that Simon and Chris Rennard don't agree with it), and this motion will simply dilute that while offering nothing in its place. Amending it, or referencing it back will simply lead to yet another pantomime of setting up yet another working group to look at it which, surprise surprise, comes to exactly the same conclusions as now. Defeating this motion on the other hand will be deeply embarrassing for the leadership, which in my view would be very healthy indeed.
DELGA has, I’m afraid, not been up to much for years, but that’s probably a subject for another post. And, no, as I said, the word ‘bisexual’ didn’t appear in the 1997 Manifesto. By 2001, though, bisexuals and transgender people had not only made it into the main Manifesto, but the party produced a full LGBT Manifesto, with all its commitments in the main Manifesto too, something of which I was particularly proud.

By a curious coincidence, I stood down from the FPC last year and, suddenly, we’ve disappeared. Sigh. While EMLD has a record as crap (and often crapper) than DELGA, the political will is there to make sure that ethnic minority issues don’t completely drop off the party’s agenda, and quite right, too. It’s a shame the same people can’t give a toss about us; it gets very tedious being the only person ever to stick my head above the parapet, and I’d much rather someone else could one day be arsed to say something. But evidently not.

Meanwhile, good luck with your amendment, James…
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